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Music and Academics Work Hand in Hand at Upper West Side School

By Emily Frost | October 3, 2016 8:26am
 The Special Music School integrates music lessons into the school day so that kids can focus on practicing and other activities at home. 
Special Music School Weaves Music Into School Day
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Principal Katie Banucci-Smith has her dream job.

A child musician who attended a music conservatory for college and went on to sing opera before falling into teaching, Banucci-Smith heads the Special Music School. The K-12 public school at 129 W. 67th St. perfectly marries her two passions and does that for students as well, she said.

"It feels very much like we’re a community school that’s meant for kids that really love music ... where kids have a warm, nurturing academic community," she told DNAinfo New York.

"It’s for kids who are inquisitive and engaged and at the same time they get this pre-professional music program that’s kind of intertwined in the day."

The school's K-8 program has made headlines for its top results on state tests, beating out other district schools and coming in first citywide. The 200-student high school was formed in 2013 and interest is spreading by word-of-mouth, said Banucci-Smith. 

DNAinfo New York sat down with Banucci-Smith to hear more about the school and about her role as principal.

What are you looking for in selecting the 15 students for your kindergarten class? 

We're not looking to pick someone, we're looking to find a match. We're looking to find people that really want to do this and kids that seem to have an aptitude for doing it.

We try to build diverse classrooms. Some have parents that are in the field, some don't have parents that are in the field, this is their first music test ever. We look at it from like a thousand different diversity lenses. We try to pick half girls, half boys. We try to pick socioeconomic diversity. 

What's the most challenging part and the most fun part of your job?

The most challenging part has been developing the high school over the last four years. 

Aside from the rules and regulations that come along with a good high school, we really want a place where kids at the end can go into conservatory-level training, but that they get a very high-level academic program as well, so if they choose to go into a dual major or go straight into a career for whatever reason, we’re trying to keep a diversity to our program for every kid. But we're very small. We don’t have substantial resources of big schools. What we do have is a very flexible and engaged staff.

A good example of that is that Fridays at the end of the day we have this extra academic period in the high school and the staff decided to build clubs so they're all teaching extra [classes]— a visual arts club, a language lab club, a student government club. They’re building their own additional academic programs to get them to really try new things. That doesn’t happen at every high school. That happens at a school with teachers that are really motivated.

And seeing our 12th graders this year is amazing. I’ve known a lot of those kids since they came in in sixth grade and I’ve watched them become adults and that is so rewarding. 

How do students balance academia with music?

One of the biggest struggles the Special Music School has in terms of helping kids is helping them balance music and academics. In order to do that you really need a low student-to-teacher ratio in order to really understand the trials that each child has in balancing that workload. 

How do you make time for play and relaxation?

That’s the beauty of the design of the Special Music School. Everything is during the school day. Their lessons are during their school day, ensembles are during the school day, music theory. Most kids have to go to school, and if they love music they take academics from like 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then they have a whole afternoon where they have to go to their lessons, they have to take theory class and so it's kind of an added part. ... We allow kids after school to get involved in other types of activities.

Usually kids go home and some middle schools require three to four hours of homework. We only require an hour and a half because our emphasis is on kids going home and practicing their instruments every day ... just becoming part of what they do.

How do you achieve such great results on the state tests?

Small class sizes and a lot of differentiated instruction in the classroom, and also I really believe that the one-on-one relationship that they have with the music teachers — it's phenomenal. Having that one-on-one interaction with the musician, with the type of focus and rigor that it brings into their learning, I think it's a huge component to why we do so well on our exams. It’s like tutoring twice a week for 45 minutes on focus and discipline and rigor. Music is reading; music is listening — and all of that is why the students do so well on the tests, that and the great curriculum.

What role does test prep play?

We do so little of it. These kids are so focused and engaged and attuned. We don’t like to put extra stress during those testing periods because they have tests all the time. They're asked to go in front of people and play instruments in front of large crowds.

We get our kids ready and we show them what the test will feel like but it’s really embedded in our curriculum. ... Our curriculum is very aligned with the Common Core learning standards and aligned with the test, but really that’s not our emphasis. Our emphasis is really on kids learning and growing.

How do you prepare your students to become 21st century musicians?

Many of the music schools are built with this older traditional model where kids go to big orchestras, where they go to big band and the world of big band does not exist anymore. Music is created usually in small ensembles, in small groups. And it's also created with kids that have a strong internal artistic sense. And so for us, we don't want kids to sit in a big orchestra and play their part; we want kids thinking about "How can music fit in this area? How can I get people to hear me? How can I get people to join?" 

For the most part we want kids learning how to work in quartet-like scenarios where they're collaborating, they're talking, they're responding to one another, whereas you don't get opportunities like that in large orchestras.

We believe strongly in private lessons. ... You need that type of training in music in order to move to the professional levels. It's a pretty intense private lesson.